The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) often is acknowledged as the most successful and popular of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs implemented to lift up the nation’s unemployed and their families during the Great Depression.
Portsmouth native Walter McDowell described the situation faced by many during that period. “There wasn’t any work to be done,” he said. “Kids just roaming the streets. Things were really tight then. That’s the reason they had the CCC camps. You couldn’t get a job. You couldn’t even have bought a job then, if you had had any money.”
For the young men eligible to enroll in that government experiment, however, the transition from familiar surroundings of neighborhood, family and friends, to a new world of regimented oversight in a far-off camp of strangers was a bitter pill to swallow. Some “went over the hill”—the corps’ slang for running away from camp.
“Not many of them left because they didn’t have any money,” recalled McDowell. “They couldn’t get any money at home. That’s the reason they were in there. Lots of them didn’t have a place to sleep if they went back home. It was rough days. A quarter went a long ways.”
For the great majority of those who toughed it out, the experiences that followed changed their lives. Walter McDowell was with the first group assigned to the site that would become CCC Camp Albemarle at Moorman’s River/White Hall. “They put us on a train at Fort Monroe and sent us up to Crozet. Trucks met us there and carried us up to that vacant field at White Hall. Peach orchard on one side of it. Moorman’s River right down below us.
“Yeah, they dumped us out on a vacant field, threw some tents out and said, ‘Ya’ll put ‘em up if you want to sleep inside out of the rain.’ We were learning right from the start. They cooked outdoors until we built a mess hall. The only bath we had was the Moorman’s River. We had to dig a trench to use for a latrine. Yeah, a bunch of kids turned loose with three Army officers. They helped us out with how to set up tents and stuff like that. We didn’t know a thing about it! On the job training.”
Roosevelt’s vision for the CCC program was for conservation of the nation’s natural resources. Some enrollees were charged with construction of public recreation areas, such as national and state parks, including Shenandoah National Park.
Camp Albemarle’s efforts were directed toward private lands. J. Harvey Bailey, engineer for Camp Albemarle from 1933-’42, said, “White Hall was one of the several camps who worked especially on suppression of forest fire. It built truck trails and improved secondary public roads and bridges to expedite access to isolated peaks and valleys.”
Among Camp Albemarle’s projects during its first six months in 1933 was the erection of an 80’ tall steel fire tower along with the grading of its service road on Carter’s Mountain near Monticello. They erected similar towers on Heards Mountain in southern Albemarle and near Quinque in Greene County, and strung telephone lines through the woods to connect those installations with fire wardens and members of their crews.
Bruce Link of Lunenberg County was enrolled at Camp Albemarle from 1934-’37, and earned a position as assistant to the educational advisor in less than a year. The scope of his work moved from the field to the camp’s office. Still, all in camp were required to be at the ready to respond to any emergency.
Early one dry, breezy day a forest fire became well-established in northern Nelson County. All available woodsmen from Camp Albemarle were called out to prevent the blaze from crossing the mountain into Albemarle County near Heards. When a second woodland fire was reported that afternoon at Gilbert’s Station in northern Albemarle, 19 members of the camp’s overhead [staff] were the only personnel remaining to respond. The cooks and kitchen police were left behind to prepare food, if necessary, to send to the fire lines.
After extinguishing the second fire, the truckload of “goldbricks” (an unflattering term applied to the camp overhead by the foresters) stopped at a service station and phoned camp to report the successful suppression of the fire at Gilbert’s. Bruce Link wrote, “They told us that the Forest Service had reported another fire [the third of the day] loose on the mountains near Nortonsville. This statement was met by the remark, “Well, we put the other one out in short order, so let’s go.”
Arriving at Nortonsville, mountain fires were observed in two separate places. Informed that local residents and a fire warden were fighting the one to the north, the CCCs made the steep climb toward the southern blaze. Link continued, “Whipped by wind that seemed to be rising, the fire worked swiftly down the other side of the ridge. Half of us rushed ahead to the other side of the mountain. Darkness was closing in and dead trees all around sent showers of sparks everywhere.
“While trying to extinguish a tall stump on the verge of toppling and rolling down the unburned mountainside, a blazing tree nearby crashed to the ground and wind whisked sparks across our firebreak. Small fires sprang up a hundred yards down the mountainside. Hearing a call from below, we hurried down and found two local fellows whose home was at the foot of the mountain. After desperately trying to rake another break, it became apparent that it was futile.
“Others in our group came down the mountain. ‘We were in a small open field surrounded by the fire and had to come part of the way thru the fire and burnt woods to get here,’ they said. We retreated down the mountain and crowded into the small cabin [with the family’s three generations of inhabitants.] Having eaten nothing for eleven hours, two of the men went down to see if any food had been left for us. They found a whole box at a distant store near the Blue Ridge Industrial School. Telephoning the camp, they learned that the fire at Heards was still being battled, so we could expect no help.
“The State Forester in Charlottesville reported that men would be sent from the Criglersville CCC camp to relieve us. As the wind subsided in the night and the tin roof on the cabin stopped rattling, we could see that the fire was slowing down. The mountain people were greatly relieved for their home and everything they owned. With sincere words of appreciation they bade us goodbye and we started for the truck. The ride back to camp was a cold one. When the truck stopped on the parade grounds everyone piled off and stumbled to the barracks. It was 2:30 A.M.”
The Spirit of the CCC was summed up in its slogan “We Can Take It!” In its ranks, untold numbers of older teens and young adults, at one time faced with scant hope for tomorrow, learned the enduring truth of those words through their shared experiences.